Britain in focus – A Photographic History (part 2)

Documentary series, BBC4. In three parts, commencing 6 March 2017.

I thought it would be helpful to my learning to take notes as I watched this program, and to record my learning in my learning log.

In this second part of the series, Eamonn McCabe introduces us to the beginnings of media reportage. Following developments in photographic processes that allowed images to be reproduced directly on the pages of a newspaper, media images of significant events could be produced. The new process of photography relied on producing negatives on glass plates which could then be quickly reproduced as positive images. Previously, the only way an image could be reproduced directly into a newspaper was through individual engraving. The Mirror newspaper group significantly increased its sales when it published a report including a dramatic front page image depicting the Sydney Street siege in London in 1911.

This report aroused unprecedented interest from the public and was ‘the making of press photography’. It led to a growing public appetite for news stories. For the first time, for example, intimate pictures of the armed forces could be taken and used to record the experiences of the soldiers leading up to the war.

I was interested in the fact that the most significant photographer of WW1 soldiers’ lives was a woman. Christina Broome took images of soldiers and she and her daughter printed and produced them overnight. Her images showed a personal view of the experience of war, the everyday lives of those in the army. So successful was her venture that her images of happy healthy soldiers actually boosted recruitment into the forces.

The development of the ‘Vest pocket Kodak’, marketed and aimed at use by the soldiers allowed images to be taken by them and introduced ‘a new level of realism’ to war photography. Written notes about location and date could be made directly on to the negative using a stylus. The first pictures of the war action were taken by soldiers. However, when images of friendly personal relationships between the English and German soldiers were circulated, the army banned the use of VPKs. The few images that do remain create a valuable historical document.

‘Back in London’, Alvin Langdon Coburn was making his mark on photography by establishing portraiture as an art form. His image of George Bernard Shaw, naked and posed like ‘The Thinker’ established Coburn as ‘the country’s first celebrity photographer’. Coburn’s technique involved establishing a raport and relationship with his sitters. He wanted to break down the usual barriers between photographer and subject.  His image of  W B Yeats, taken while the author is reciting a poem, shows him with a natural, honest expression, staring straight at the camera. This image was not staged and it perfectly captured the honest relationship and lack of barrier between Coburn and his subject. McCabe goes on to tell us that Coburn’s moody urban landscapes of London were very much a result of his printing techniques. He used platinum printing techniques that ensured a misty, ominous outcome.

Cecil Beeton is famous for his capturing of stylised images of the ‘roaring 20’s’ showing life after the war and celebrating the new freedoms. His famous picture of his sister Nancy shows a new stylised photography in its theatrical and dramatic use of her flamboyant costumes and re-touching to create a staged image that captured the hedonism of the post war years. Beeton’s images were published by Vogue magazine for many years and fashion magazines used images like these to help to sell their products. Photographs were artistic, they did not always clearly depict the product for sale but their use of glamour and setting helped to ‘sell a lifestyle’, and consequently the product. Beeton was influenced by the surrealist art movement that used theatrical and magical images, and he helped to establish the genre of fashion photography.

Following the  hedonism of the 20s, the thirties presented a very different view of Britain. This was an era of ‘unemployment, poverty and protest’. Bill Brandt was a German Photographer working in the north of England at the time. His images show the reality of life in some of the most deprived areas during the depression. Some of his images were staged to capture portraits of people who lived and worked in poor industrial communities, and he ‘created a version of Britain never before recorded’.

The ‘roll film Leica’ allowed photographers to take their images without the use of a tripod and changed the nature of photography as a consequence. The famous image of the two young women on the fairground ride, both smiling, one showing her knickers as the wind blows her skirt was considered ‘ahead of its time’. The girl’s underwear was airbrushed out but the final image was cheeky, and showed working class girls having a laugh. This image was different to anything previously seen.

A year later, in 1939, WW2 broke out. Bill Hardy’s images captured the work of firemen as they responded to calls during the blitz. His work shows the danger inherent in the work and also to the photographer. For the first time, a photographer was credited with the images used in a report that appeared in the newspaper. Hardy went on to document the liberation of Bergan-Belson concentration camp, capturing unprecedented scenes of human suffering. Similarly, George Rodger’s image of a little boy, out for a walk, and passing piles of corpses at the roadside was shocking and disturbing. The visual record of the Holocaust formed part of the evidence used to convict war criminals

McCabe says, it is important to record these events, however terrible, as a lasting testimony for following generations.


Britain in focus (2017) (TV Programme)

This post is written using hand written notes taken while watching the program. I have used quotation marks where words have been directly lifted from the commentary.





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